Brazil’s Lula da Silva and His Troubling Friends

There is a difference between expanding commercial ties with other countries irrespective of their ideological persuasion, preparing for the day when the US dollar will not be the reserve currency of the world or pursuing a foreign policy not beholden to Washington, and sending every signal that your affinities lie with powerful dictators with geopolitical ambitions, justifying the worst aspects of those regimes, facilitating their insertion in your region and directing a significant amount of public hostility against western liberal democracies. Brazil’s Lula da Silva understands the difference and has consciously opted for the latter.

Earlier this year, Lula authorized two Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro on their way to the Panama Canal despite precedents pointing to Teheran’s use of these types of ships for illegal activities (Brazilian administration officials went onboard to greet the visitors). A few weeks later, Lula’s closest foreign policy advisor went to Russia to visit with Vladimir Putin, the prelude to a trip by Serguéi Lavrov, Moscow’s foreign minister, to Latin America, where he is making stops in Brazil and three notorious dictatorships—Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. A visit by Putin himself is in the offing.

On a recent trip to China, Lula placed the blame for the continuation of the Ukrainian war on the US and the European Union. He put Russia and Ukraine on an equal footing, making it clear, not for the first time, that he does not see Russia as the original aggressor. His comments reflect his view that a new world order needs to emerge in which his friends, the dictatorships of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others, should play the leading role. During the same visit to Beijing, Lula had nothing but praise for China’s political model. In an interview with China Media Group, he was full of admiration for how China’s Communist Party had been able to preserve its ideology and organization—i.e., the one-party state—while modernizing the economy. 

Lula went on to say that, unlike the West, which is colonialist and war-prone, China always promotes peace and pursues a “more humane, more just, more fraternal” foreign policy. It was not a joke.

In February, Brazil and China signed agreements making the Yuan the trading currency. During Lula’s recent visit, deals were made involving satellite, G5, and semiconductor technology that will expand Beijing’s technological footprint in Latin America’s most important country big-time.

The pattern seems clear. Lula is not pursuing an independent foreign policy, seeking to expand trade with major commercial partners, sensibly preparing for a world in which the US dollar is no longer overwhelmingly dominant and otherwise acting, the president of a major country that he is, like a big boy among big boys. Instead, he is aligning himself with the great autocracies of our time, mocking the values of freedom, human rights, and good neighborliness that he should be espousing. 

The worst part is the message this sends to Latin America, where millions of people are suffering under dictators closely aligned with those same authoritarian powers, and millions more are struggling under governments that are gradually developing into illiberal, autocratic regimes. 

Last time Lula was in power, he became a major ally of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s Castro brothers, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. But at the time, several countries of significant size in Latin America were liberal democracies and espoused healthier values (even if some of those administrations could not produce very good results). Today much of Latin America is under demagogic, populist regimes, and the values of liberal democracy under the rule of law, free trade, and limited government are under siege, which makes Lula’s game an even more dangerous one.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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